Actress Patty Duke’s Fantasy: A March on Washington

Patty Duke

Credit: Heather Evans Photography

Several years ago, Emmy-award winning actress Patty Duke shared a story with me. Back in 1970, at age 24, she’d walked off the set of a show on which she was guest starring. The actors had been told to take lunch and leave a tired crew behind to fix technical problems. She didn’t like the inequity. Outside the studio, she jumped onto a garbage truck with armed soldiers heading for an army base with a studio limo in pursuit to get the actress back to the set on time. As if this weren’t disastrous enough, she invited the armed soldiers — and their friends — more than 100 men in uniform — to the studio for lunch. Not surprisingly, she was summoned to Sid Sheinberg’s office. While she waited impatiently in his office for him to arrive, she picked up a Mickey Mouse clock he had sitting on his desk and tucked it into her pocket. When Sid Sheinberg arrived, Patty Duke threw his Mickey Mouse clock at him, but not before greeting him with a string of obscenities. No matter that Sid Sheinberg was president of MCA studios and a Hollywood powerhouse. She was angry.

The whole scene could be written off as just another Hollywood actress behaving badly, but that was not the case. Patty Duke had bipolar disorder but was unaware of it.

Nearly 42 years after that episode, and after 20 years of a tumultuous life of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows that characterize manic depression, Patty Duke is balanced. And despite the enticements of euphoria, balanced is a much better place to be, she says. (Sid Sheinberg would probably agree.)

The disorder began for Patty Duke when she was just eight years old. It was then that she began experiencing terrorizing panic attacks. At age 16, when she was starring in The Patty Duke Show, she started having audio hallucinations and insomnia that would go on for days. Then, periods of depression set in, but it was only the depression she would allow her psychiatrists to see. She kept the mania her secret, until one day a psychiatrist witnessed it, gave her a correct diagnosis and prescribed lithium.

I recently caught up with the woman I know as Anna Duke Pearce. As always, she is warm and witty. She is also a woman on a mission. For nearly 25 years, Patty Duke has traveled around the country educating audiences on brain disorders such as hers and speaking out about the stigma that goes along with being diagnosed with a “mental illness” (which I refer to here as brain disorders, because the mind is in the brain). Her wish before she dies is that it becomes ordinary and commonplace to treat these disorders just like it is with the flu. (See Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter’s Primary Care Initiative.)

The problem, of course, is the stigma associated with these brain disorders. “When we want to say something negative to somebody we say, ‘Aww, you’re so crazy.’” She’s not suggesting that we drop the terminology from our lexicon. She’s saying that as a society we have not yet recognized “how deeply rooted the stigma is.”

Like Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, Patty Duke believes that people who are well-known have to battle stigma for all who suffer by being public about their diagnoses as has Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter and Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy (who will be the subject of my next blog) and “demonstrate that we are functioning, not just talking about it,” she said.

Patty Duke is also concerned about children and teenagers for whom she says the stigma is 10 times as powerful. Add to that the pain, terror and depression that are the symptoms of many brain disorders. “I remember wanting to give up with all of my heart and soul,” she says.

Further, some of the drugs used to treat these brain disorders may pose an increase risk of suicide. We become complacent when people are taking their meds, she says. We think they’re fine now. So sometimes we take our eye off the ball and don’t see the symptoms that can lead to suicide, “either as a drug reaction or from the illness,” she says. “So, even though I’m very big on taking our medicines, it is not the panacea,” she warns. To teenagers she says, “Don’t give up.”

At age 64, Patty Duke is deeply grateful she didn’t give up. “But it doesn’t mean that everyday I’m walking on air,” she notes. Still, she emphasizes that hope actually exists. She also wants people who are suffering from brain disorders to know that they are not the only ones. She meets so many people who think they are the only ones with bipolar.

And it’s not just the people with the diagnosis who suffer, Patty Duke points out. Family members get caught up in the illnesses. (The affect of these brain disorders on family members has been well recognized in the Alzheimer’s community.)

Patty Duke doesn’t know of any other way to reduce stigma other than to continue funding research for treatments. “I never thought I’d be saying this, but I’m coming to believe that without the money we’re just spitting in the wind,” she says.

Research could move forward “if the government would stop cutting all the funding for mental health research,” Patty Duke says. “[I]t is cost effective to treat people with mental illness, and most of the time the treatments work and people return to the workplace, and they pay taxes. Why can’t we grasp that simple notion?” she asks.

Patty Duke has addressed Congress on this matter three times.

Because of a lack of funding, there’s a lack of organization. There’s no networking among community centers, she says, which echoes what Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter told me.

“We can become a force. Right now, we’re a bunch of little forces,” Patty Duke says.

Patty Duke has a fantasy (and she doesn’t think it’s a manifestation of her illness, she jokes) of all the people with these disorders marching on Washington, D.C. “There wouldn’t be anybody left home,” she laughs. “To the uninitiated it would be yet a further demonstration that we’re tired of hiding,” she adds, and she’s serious about that.

In the end it comes down to each individual. “We have to be thoughtful about our votes,” Patty Duke says.

Note: I was recently made aware of an organization whose mission it is to fight stigma associated with these types of brain disorders. Bring Change 2 Mind, an anti stigma campaign, was founded by actress Glenn Close and other like-minded organizations. For the next week, I will donate half the profits from my novel, MIND GAMES, to Bring Change 2 Mind. A 5-star rated thriller/suspense at both and, at its heart, MIND GAMES is a story of one small-town journalist’s fight against stigma as she battles her own war on terror. You can also donate directly to Bring Change 2 Mind.

For more by S.Z. Berg, click here.

For more on mental health, click here.

A Conversation With Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter About Stigma, Discrimination, and Brain Disorders


Mrs. Carter
Credit: The Carter Center/P. Rohe

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter has been an unrelenting crusader for people suffering from mental illness (which I refer to here as brain disorders). For more than 40 years she’s been working on promoting awareness of the issues, public policy, making health care insurance coverage for these brain disorders comparable to traditional health care coverage, and reducing stigma and discrimination against the people who suffer from these brain conditions.

I spoke with Rosalynn Carter about stigma and treatments.

Rosalynn Carter emphasized that “mental illness” is “an illness like any other illness.” It can be diagnosed and treated, and almost everyone suffering from one of these disorders can be helped. The problem is access to help and the stigma associated with obtaining healthcare.

Much of the stigma related to these brain disorders was created because of our nation’s past history of institutionalizing people with these illnesses. As a result, Rosalynn Carter’s efforts have focused on educating people on these disorders in order to reduce the stigma associated with our nation’s health practitioners having gone to such extremes as removing people from society simply because their symptoms were misunderstood.

Stigma in these modern times has not changed much. In fact, Rosalynn Carter said it may even be increasing. It is difficult for her to understand why the stigma still exists today when at least one in four adults in the United States is diagnosed with a mental health condition, she said.

Through The Carter Center, Rosalynn Carter has focused on strategies to reduce stigma and discrimination.

As with any form of prejudice, the answer begins with education.

Rosalynn Carter stressed the need for internists to be trained to recognize symptoms, make the diagnosis, treat the condition, and know the resources in community for referral and support. However, she found, after enormous efforts, that medical schools were resistant to incorporating this type of coursework into their curriculums, and there is no umbrella organization that can make it a requirement.

The Carter Center for Mental Health created its Primary Care Initiative to tackle this problem. It is an especially important initiative, because many primary care physicians are not well trained on diagnosing or treating these brain disorders. Indeed, according to the Carter Center, depression is too often misdiagnosed and only one third of patients treated for depression in the primary care setting have any type of meaningful improvement in their condition. (This may be due to ineffective treatments. See JAMA article.) At the root of this problem is stigma among medical practitioners, despite the improved understanding of “mental illnesses” being biological brain disorders no different from any other brain disorders.

As a result, people who suffer from these brain conditions continue to feel the stigma and are embarrassed to seek professional help. Rosalynn Carter would like to see medical centers expand into one-stop shops, where various practitioners would practice so that consumers don’t feel stigmatized getting treatment, and, of course, she wants to destigmatize brain disorders. She added that there is a need for more community centers at which to get treatment. (Georgia, she noted, has a Medicaid-paid peer pairing program — those treated helping those getting treatment — that’s successful.)

The media is another area where Rosalynn Carter focuses, because the media has contributed to stigmatization of these brain conditions. Too often journalists and reporters refer to the symptoms of these brain disorders as “bizarre” and other derogatory terms. To combat this problem, Rosalynn Carter created The Rosalynn Carter Fellowships For Mental Health Journalism to educate journalists.

On an individual level, stigma can be reduced through interpersonal experiences, Rosalynn Carter said. She would like to see neighbors getting to know neighbors and co-workers getting to know co-workers with these disorders. After seeing that they’re okay and that they’re raising families, she hopes the stigma will fade. She also believes it helps when celebrities reveal that they have been diagnosed (and treated for) a brain disorder (as has Emmy-award winning Patty Duke. Look for my interview with her in my next blog posting.)

Rosalynn Carter recently led The Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy, which focused on building services and support for children at risk for developing brain disorders related to psychological trauma.

The Politics, Stigma and Experience of Brain Disorders: A Blog Series

Image: Victor Habbick /

The holiday season is a good time to talk about brain disorders. The kind I’m talking about are more commonly referred to as mental illness, but I think that term detracts from the fact that depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dementia and other such conditions arise in the brain. I think it allows us to consider them less important than “real” brain disorders, such as tumors and strokes.

Mental illnesses are too often tossed aside as conditions that take place in the mind. (Last I knew, the mind was in the brain, and the brain is a pretty important organ — I think you’ll agree.) I see people wearing pink ribbons for breast cancer and other colors for other diseases and rallying around them to raise money for research to eradicate these awful diseases. (And more power to these people.) But save for autism, I see little energy going into standing up for people suffering from stigmatized brain disorders that affect thoughts and emotions and that leave their hosts losing out to fulfilling their potential.

If it takes selfishness to motivate people to rally around a cause, then consider all that we miss out on — discoveries and advances in various fields that are left undone because these sufferers may not be able to function at the high rate they otherwise would. You can also think about your wallet, because the cost in lost productivity and therapeutic (and only weakly effective) measures ultimately cost us in terms of taxes or reduced profits. And if you think you are immune from developing such a condition, think again. In one study, nearly half (43 percent) of older Americans will have Alzheimer’s disease by age 85 — and that’s just one form of dementia.

Having a brain disorder leaves you vulnerable at any age, but having one when you’re a child or a senior citizen leaves you especially vulnerable.

It is true that there is research going on, but too often I see the same research being done again and again using antidepressants. However, a landmark paper published in JAMA Jan. 6, 2010, that reviewed nearly 30 years of studies found that antidepressants are no more effective than placebos (sugar pills) for those people with mild to moderate depression. (This is not to say come off your medication if you are taking it, but that research needs to be done outside of antidepressants.) Further, many of the psychotropic medications — drugs used to treat so-called mental health disorders — have serious side effects, including substantial weight gain, metabolic syndrome and tardive dyskinesia. Money is a factor, understandably. So it surprises me that funding is seemingly not being given to larger studies that would validate the findings of innovative small studies that have shown real possibilities for using inexpensive treatments, such as Tylenol to treat emotional pain (emotional pain is pain, after all — think heartbreak) and Vitamin B8 to treat obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

I chose the holidays to address these particular types of brain disorders, because many people feel depressed at this time of year. I’m hoping that feeling will give way to empathy long after your depression lifts with the promise of a new year.

For this series, I have interviewed former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, who has been an unrelenting crusader for people suffering from brain disorders, Emmy-award winning actress Patty Duke, who has bipolar disorder and who speaks about bipolar around the country, and former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, who has been a relentless fighter for the rights of people with brain disorders to have their diagnoses be covered by insurance like any other medical disorder and whose focus has now become understanding the etiology of brain disorders and changing the way we perceive brain disorders by looking at them through the eyes of our soldiers.

I’m placing links to their nonprofits below. I want to point out, though, that neither Mrs. Carter or her organization or Mr. Kennedy asked me to link to their websites, but I suspect they’d be pleased if you’d support their efforts.

Carter Center Mental Health Program
The Next Frontier

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The Other Side of the Window by S.Z. Berg


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What would you do if you knew the truth, but no one would believe you?

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William Edwards and the Wizardly Glasses


William Edwards was not good at anything, or so he was told. When he doesn’t bring home a soccer trophy (when they’re given out just for showing up), his banker parents (who bought him off the Internet) think he’s an investment that’s just not paying off. Oh, they are a frightful pair, indeed, even throwing mustard parties, with plenty of gluten, when William is allergic to mustard — and has celiac, so he can’t eat wheat!

But everything changes for William when a knowing old lady gives him a pair of big green glasses with rose-colored lenses. His classmates tease him, because he looks like a frog. But they turn out to be wizardly glasses, and William is transported to Winkleberry, a school for children with wizzies (magical powers). There he meets a smart young girl, Bora, and another boy, Zandall, who help William learn about his wizzies and accidentally lead him to a time travel machine. But before William can travel back in time to save his real parents, who are being held captive in 1929 by a zygot (a monster that inhabits the homes of mean people), William must protect the gene pool in his fake parents’ back yard from mutation!